Tilley has right ideas for reimagining response to drug epidemic

Published 4:50 am Tuesday, November 19, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley is saying a lot of important things. Everyone should be listening.

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“Stop using this criminal-justice hammer to address a public-health nightmare,” Tilley told journalists learning to cover substance abuse and recovery recently, according to Kentucky Health News.

Tilley’s speech at the day-long workshop in Ashland covered a lot of ground and made it crystal clear just how far Kentucky has yet to go to truly address the current drug-abuse epidemic.

Tilley suggested the time for incremental changes is past — “I think it’s high time that we quit tweaking and begin with a new model,” KHN quoted him saying.

There are many better ways of addressing drug abuse and helping those with addiction that aren’t in wide use around the commonwealth; some aren’t in use at all.

Many Kentucky counties do have syringe exchanges, which help prevent the spread of diseases, improve safety for first responders and connect injection drug users with options for treatment.

Very few communities have pre-arrest diversion programs that help drug users get treatment instead of putting them in jail.

Services that would help those serving time or out on probation, such as drug treatment programs and job training, are often lacking.

Meanwhile, Kentucky’s jails and prisons are overflowing; the state’s prison population is up by 702 percent since 1970, Tilley said. And there are 135,000 children in the Bluegrass State who have been affected somehow by incarceration, which is more than in any other state.

Kentucky has a criminal justice system built to deal with crime, which is instead being used to deal with a health problem — addiction. Law enforcement has proven about as effective against drug addiction as doctors would be at stopping crime.

Injecting compassion for those dealing with addiction into the criminal justice system has helped moderate the damage done, and it has helped some overcome their addictions and turn their lives around. But we’re still using the wrong tool to fix the problem.

Success stories will remain anecdotal until we have a systemic transformation of how we respond to the drug epidemic. Kentucky needs a cultural-level change in our thinking to make that happen.

Tilley knows where we need to go. We need to think about treatment first, not jail, for drug users. We need to stop putting people in jail for possession. We need to stop spending so much effort on catching “traffickers” — a loaded term that often gets applied to people who are really just drug users — and spend a lot more effort on prevention, helping eliminate demand for the drugs in the first place.

We need judges and law enforcement to stop thinking of jail as a solution or something that can benefit a drug user — “The idea that putting someone in jail is a lifesaver is such a fallacy,” Tilley said.

We need to give drug users second chances, but they also need third, fourth, fifth chances and more. Addiction is a health problem,  but it’s less like catching a cold and more like getting diagnosed with diabetes. Addiction cannot be cured and it takes lots of practice to get good at resisting it on a daily basis. It takes almost every addict lots of tries to get clean and stay clean for even just a year.

Tilley summarized what this transformed drug treatment system would like quite nicely with a question: “Why don’t we remove the criminal justice system and let public health and let our medical professionals and our treatment professionals and our mental health professionals try to dig us out of this mess?”

It’s a good question. We think there’s a simple answer: “We should. Let’s do it.”